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During the past few years, I have attended meetings and read newspapers articles and social media posts on concerns that have affected Howard County residents. These have ranged from the latest proposal to redistrict 7,400 Howard County students, to concerns with flood mitigation and environmental impact of new developments, to concerns with transportation and the need to make infrastructure improvements to support all users safety.

The one common factor has been that people don’t get energized (or pay attention) until their child, neighborhood, commute, home or business is going to be affected and their perceived quality of life reduced.

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Most of these new advocates are focused on prevention, remediation of damage that has already occurred or mitigation of potential future detrimental effects. Some have blamed uncontrolled or poorly planned development for these unintended consequences and incompetence in county government for encouragement of more development for near-term revenue while accruing long-term infrastructure debt.

Although much of above is true, the root cause that has gotten us to a crisis point in so many areas is the undue influence developers (and their attorneys and associates) have had through consistent, significant campaign contributions to county and state elections.

Like National Rifle Association contributions and influence in Congress that has limited gun control legislation, developer donations at the local level, to both Democrats and Republican candidates and elected officials, have effectively negated constituent desires on slowing or controlling growth. How do elected officials pay back their primary donors?

  • Not introducing bills that would limit development, voting against or vetoing those bills, or amending proposed legislation to provide loopholes or limit its intended effectiveness.
  • Using resolutions, which indicate a desire to change regulation, versus bills, which have the force of law, to direct county departments to changes procedures or documentation.
  • Bureaucratically delaying changes in regulations and legislation that would adversely affect development. These include: Public Works Design Manuals, Planning and Zoning Development Regulations, and changes in the General (Zoning) Plan. Every year that delay occurs in Howard County, 1,700 new units of housing and thousands of additional car trips and students are added to crowded roads and schools.
  • Creating or fostering a mindset in Planning and Zoning that their responsibility is to facilitate development rather than ensure that zoning, environmental and infrastructure issues are considered. This results in a consistent pattern of recommending waivers and rezoning (usually approval of increasing density) while at the same time allowing developers to buy out of requirements for affordable (less profitable) housing.
  • Use of distraction or deflection when addressing impacts of development on the community. This can include packing the legislative agenda with a number of high profile bills and resolutions or large numbers of amendments to proposed bills. At its worse, it involves using “hot button” terms. Examples include: an amendment to a 2019 state bill to exclude senior developments from Adequate Public Facilities (school) charges. Although the resale of former homes adds to the repopulation of schools, opponents were branded as “anti-senior.” Or the redistricting of schools forced by the overdevelopment and inadequate school infrastructure; by adding “integration” language, residents have been deflected from development issues and are calling each other “racist” or “socialist” instead.

For a variety of reasons, the conflict of interest engendered by accepting, or in many cases soliciting, donations from the development community is not identified as such. In addition, it doesn’t end when campaign season is over. A month ago, a group of well-connected developers in Howard County held a campaign fundraiser for a key elected official. This is over three years before the next election cycle. Why would developers continue to provide financial donations?

In the next two months, the County Council is considering bills to:

  • Eliminate some environmental waivers from Planning and Zoning
  • Extend a moratorium on building in the Tiber and Plumtree watersheds
  • Significantly increase the school facilities surcharge on new development
  • Eliminate some forms of long-term development agreements

A bill to extend the development waiting period from four to seven years for overcrowded school districts was already voted down.

What needs to be done? Legislation needs to be passed at state and county levels that brands developer donations as a conflict of interest. Donations need to be either limited or identified as an ethical violation that would require elected officials to recuse themselves from voting or vetoing bills that would benefit donors. Without this long-term change, the unintended but predictable effects of development will continue to adversely affect Howard County residents.

Jack Guarneri is a 29-year resident of Ellicott City, a retired naval officer and a retired principal staff analyst at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

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